Sunday, July 26, 2009


As the regular reader of this blog (yes, there really is one) will know, I rarely get irritated about anything. OK, I'm lying - I'm always getting irritated. And last night I got irritated all over again.

My friend Rachael posted a link to this Christian Science Monitor article on museums and community engagement. This is an important challenge for museums today and the CSM article is a good one. Having just spent a couple of months writing a grant that is aimed at improving the quality of public access to collections and building "virtual" communities around collections there was a lot in this piece to applaud.

However, as is often the case when we talk about hight-flown principles like public engagement, a person with a pointy head was wheeled out to give a "provocative" soundbite. There are a lot of people like this floating around the margins of the museum world - most of them have never actually worked in a museum, but they come heavily equipped with backgrounds in marketing and communication and look very impressive when your average museum colleague still has egg on his tie from breakfast two days ago.

Anyway, the provocateur in this case was James Chung, who works for Reach Advisors. What do Reach Advisors do? Well, according to their website' they focus on "emerging shifts in how people live, play and buy" and deliver "data-driven strategies that allow clients to put insight into action." In other words, they're market researchers. But doesn't it sound so much more exciting the way Reach Associates describes it? I'm totally hiring these guys to write our next grant.

Anyway, James has a message for us museum people, and that message is "It's not about the collections anymore. It's about community." Pow! Each of those sentences probably cost $10,000 and they were worth every cent. Previously, I had been worried by reports like the recent one from Mike Mares (see this earlier post) that suggested that our national heritage was at risk because we weren't investing in caring for it. Now I can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that our institution's excellent roster of community-based programming (and it is truly excellent - this is the one part of this post where I'm not being sarcastic) absolves me of any responsibility to actually do my job.

To be fair to James Chung, he gets paid large amounts of money to say things like that. That's why you hire consultants - to tell you things that you might not otherwise have thought of. You may not agree, but by putting the option on the table you open up new avenues of discussion. No, what irritated me was the comments that it elicited from some of Rachael's Facebook friends.

Now, I'm not going to name names because that wouldn't be fair: what you say on Facebook ought to stay on Facebook. Neither do I know these people, but I know Rachael very well as a friend and colleague for many years and I'm going to hazard a guess that her friends will be the sort of smart, well-educated people that are intrinsically sympathetic to museums and their mission. Some of them even work in or for museums. So I was a little surprised that they accepted the argument for the massive expansion of museums' activities into the community so enthusiastically and uncritically. I was particularly struck by one comment, which I will reproduce (anonymously) in its entirity:

"I hope he is right and we are moving from an object centered museum towards a community centered museum... it's the right direction to be going in. I have my doubts however as too many people still have the "addiction" to stuff (Both museum workers and visitors).

Huh? We're supposed to try and cure people of an interest in our collections? The collections that we have spent the last 200+ years curating, supposedly on their behalf? The stuff we spend tens of millions of their taxpayer dollars on, either directly or indirectly? It's a bad thing that when they come to a museum, that's what they want to see?

I'm all in favor of community engagement. I love that our museum hosts festivals of music and dance, or poetry slams, that pull people in through the doors who might otherwise never come to a museum. But the purpose for getting people into the museum is to help them begin to engage with our collections. We have an excellent afterschool program that allows local high school students to work directly with our collections and exhibits. We don't do it just to "keep them off the streets." We do it because we believe that both sides benefit through having hands-on contact with the amazing resources that we hold in trust for them.

We'll never abandon programs like this, because we have a responsibility to maintain and improve access to our collections. We also have a responsibility to care for those collections, so that future generations can access them. At the same time, because we are a museum, our activities, public or otherwise, are collection-centered. Museums are all about objects and collections. If not, we wouldn't be museums. We'd be galleries, or science centers entertainment venues or research institutes; schools or retail outlets.

Modern museums suffer from profound cases of insititutional schizophrenia. They have broad-based mission statements, which they try and implement as broadly as possible. All of the roles that I've listed above can be part of a museum, but this will only be successful if the museum's mission remains collection-centered. Each of these diverse functions requires resources that might otherwise be used to support the collections - the trick is to get the balance right. All too frequently, we don't. That's why our collections are in the mess they are in today.

So yes, museums have a responsibility to connect with their communities. But we need to connect through the thing that makes us unique - our collections. That "addicition to stuff" is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal and we would be idiots if we threw it away.


  1. Hi Chris – Thanks for the provocative post.

    As you likely realize, when one talks to journalists one says a ton of things, and often only one snippet, one phrase ends up included in the article. Yes, we at Reach Advisors do believe that community engagement is hugely important to museums, indeed, imperative to museums, if they want to grow and prosper in the future.

    But we do not, by any means, believe that objects are unimportant. Indeed, our research is indicating that real, authentic objects are more important than ever. As we move into an increasingly digital age, the real, object, whether a painting, a fossil, or a teaspoon, becomes more and more special to visitors, especially younger ones. I like to spend time visitor-watching at various museums, and it is amazing how often I hear a child ask “is this the real one?” and a parent respond “yes, this is the real one.” And both are looking at some object intently.

    Additionally, in recent research we asked twenty-somethings specifically how they felt about real objects versus virtual representations, and they enthusiastically said that seeing stuff online only made them want to see the real objects in person even more. Furthermore, their comments revolved around how important authenticity was to them because real authenticity is increasingly hard to find in our crazy world. Yet they felt that museums were inherently authentic, largely because they have authentic objects that are unique and wonderful.

    So what do we feel at Reach Advisors about community engagement and objects? They are both incredibly, incredibly important. Without collections, many museums lose their core purpose – of using art, history, and science to educate and inspire our visitors. You simply cannot replicate the experience of standing in front of a Vermeer (my favorite artist) any other way. It is not the same, and museum visitors recognize that. It is heartbreaking to see collections in dire need of conservation, cleaning, and simple care, and the Heritage Health Index report made me, for one, swallow hard. I personally hate seeing curators and collections managers getting laid off during these difficult economic times.

    Objects are also important tools that can be used to bring community together. I have personally witnessed this when I was the Executive Director of the Saratoga County Historical Society in Ballston Spa, NY, where we used objects to tell the stories of our community, instigating conversation, and knitting that community closer together.

    Community engagement at the museum may not always rely on objects, but more often than not, objects are imperative to attracting audiences, engaging them deeply, inspiring them, and facilitating the connections we want museums to create not only between visitors and their communities, but also among each other.

    Susie Wilkening
    Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences
    (A museum veteran and object lover who loves her current position but sometimes misses spending time in collections storage, poking around all the cool stuff!)

  2. Chris,
    I hope you don't mind if I weigh in on this discussion.

    A 30+ minute interview on the future of museums and the critical role of museums in their communities gets reduced to one line in the story. Par for the course. Then it reflects as a comment about how collections are unimportant??? I can't envision that world, but again to be expected when working with a reporter as their work is full of challenges too.

    We do, however, stand by our overall position that community engagement is critical for most types of museums. Although from your comments, I suspect you don't totally disagree with that either.

    I also suspect that after you see findings from our upcoming research on the role of objects in shaping museum attitudes from early ages, you may write about us differently down the road. Until then, I look forward to reading other thoughts on this blog!

    James Chung
    The pointy headed guy from Reach Advisors

  3. Wow - two comments to respond to. It's a rare day for PoH!

    James, I'll respond to you first since I did you the great injustice of accusing you of having a pointy head. I think we're on the same page and this just illustrates the dangers of having a complex argument reduced to a one-line soundbite. I still hold to my argument though; I think collections are a critical tool in community engagement. I hope the findings of your research will show this, and in return I want to draw your attention to some of the findings that our museum has made regarding community engagement - these will be helping to shape our program development for the forseeable future. It's called "Engaging Our Communities" and you can download a copy from this page:

  4. Susie - thank you also for taking the time to explain Reach Associate's thinking. As I said to James, I think it's a great shame that the CSM piece gave such a slanted perspective on your views. My concerns are born out of a sense that we hold these objects in trust for our communities and that as we divert resources away from caring for our collections, we put that trust in jeopardy. You come from the fortunate position of having engaged directly with collections - sadly, for many senior museum administrators this is not the case. What we do can seem quite mundane or pedestrian compared to other, front-of-house activities. Nonetheless, it is the bedrock on which museums function.

  5. A comment like that of James from Reach Advisors, no matter how far it was taken out of its context, belies an ignorance of the museum profession that is just plain counterproductive. Maybe James should get out of his office more. News flash: museums have been passionately refocusing their programming, reinstalling their galleries, rethinking their interpretive schemes, and mounting better blockbusters for years--all with the goal (and demonstrated success) of connecting the new audiences these efforts produce with their museum's collection.

    When we do surveys of our audience at my large mid-western art museum, it's the collection that people cite the most as their ultimate reason for visiting. This quest extends to the web as well. As we put more and more of our collection online, millions more hits are recorded each year...guess what, going almost exclusively to the collection search page.

    Chris got it right when he said museums collect as stewards of the public trust. In other words, museums collect FOR the public. That's what we do. So the collection and the community are not mutually exclusive. You can't separate the two; it can't be one or the other. And museum professionals know this and have been promoting the melding of the two for at least a generation now. The sleepy institutions that marketers like to constantly describe are more and more a thing of the past. One has to wonder if this debate is kept alive merely to justify the existence of such advisors. Hmmmm....

    curator (without food on his shirt, thank you very much) at a large, urban, mid-western art museum

  6. The challenge here may well be the assumptions people make about museums. Statements that begin "Museums are..." or "Museums should ..." make a tacit assumption that there is some Platonic ideal of museums

    In fact, no two museums are alike in mission, collections, or location (community). Any generalizations that we make about "museums" can be immediately countered by an example from a museum in a different location or with a different mission, which is why marketing and market research are so difficult for museums--every lesson learned elsewhere must be customized for the particulars of each museum.

    Some museums are focused on their collections, others on engaging their communities, others on creating a compelling visitor experience. Each museum balances these three things in a different way depending on the resources they have (including collections) and their particular mission. It is presumptuous to assume either that "all" museums collect or that "all museums engage local communities. Some don't collect anything; others are focused on research (and could care less about their local communities); many, of course, balance these two things.

    A more useful way to approach is to ask: What is this particular museum trying to achieve? What other museums is it like? And then: How best can they achieve that?